Extemporaneous Writing

I have had so many days lately that made me feel like I was carrying pebbles in my chest. Reflecting in bed at night, I feel so weighed down by the day's events -- maybe I shouldn't have given Jahan that piece of chocolate, I shouldn't have yelled at her when she wasn't listening, I should have carved out some time for reading and writing, I really should have organized the garage. On days like this, I feel like I am at war with myself. My thoughts are all so critical, so negative. 

I wish I could identify an easy and sure solution to quiet the incessant critic in my head on such days. A magic shut-up spell. Something. Writing is the obvious answer, as I am doing now, because I cannot bear to spend another minute examining the minutiae of the past few days. There are also cooking and baking, something to turn back to as we settle into the routine of school/work this week. But I must acknowledge the elephant in the room -- the reason all this is happening in the first place. The anxiety of going back to real life has been mounting these past few days, and now on the eve of "back to work day," I am certain that I must have something to show for the last two weeks. Not one book have I finished (though I have read a fair bit of poetry). I have not attempted a single poem, much less written one. And now I won't have a break like this for a whole year. The year seems to stretch before me endlessly -- no wonder I cannot find any joy in this first week of 2015. 

I really don't know what the point of this post is. Better sleep now. 

Cognitive Dissonance

January 1, 2014

Cognitive Dissonance or Nostalgia Revisited or New Year Blues - yes, this is one of those posts, sorry, happy new year, and thanks for reading. 

I welcomed the new year sitting in my home office with the space heater on, huddled inside a shawl and a fleece blanket, mulling with my sister over whether my baby's plush sofa should remain here or go back upstairs to the living room. We decided to keep it downstairs. I want to have a welcoming space here for my daughter to come and play while mummy works. It's a coveted reality - this image I have in my head. It inspires me to work harder and better. The only time she has been here while I worked was a few nights ago when she proceeded to painstakingly take apart a post-it pad and stick post-it notes all along the coffee table edge. 

Photo by Rebecca McCue
I have been a little unnerved by the text messages, phone calls, and Facebook announcements of how people are ringing in the new year. "Good bye, 2013. Helloooo, 2014!" I am unable to muster the same enthusiasm. The thought I have had for most of the day is not that I have been through a great year (which is true), and I must welcome another one with hope and excitement, but this, "Dammit, only 5 more days off before life resumes." This is why when the clock struck midnight on the West Coast, long after the East Coasters had posted photos of fireworks and wine glasses and the-obligatory-kiss-at-the-end-of-the-countdown, the biggest problem in my life was deciding whether a turquoise baby-sized sofa will remain in my office space or not. 

Now, about a quarter of an hour into 2014, I am thinking why I become so defensive about my disinclination to celebrate the milestone of having lived through another year. During my childhood, this used to be one of the most celebrated days of the year. My mother used to love visiting the tombs of saints on new year's eve. Even close to midnight, we used to find traffic on the streets. We used to buy garlands of huge wild roses to hang on the doors of the tomb. My mother would distribute food among the homeless and poor in the area. We would then go to a local ice-cream parlor to share a ginormous sundae (no joke). After coming home, I would sit for hours listing my resolutions for the year, first with a lead pencil on a piece of paper, and then in pen, transcribed neatly on the first page of my brand new journal (probably stolen from my father's stash of diaries - I did that a lot, and got caught constantly). 

I am so different now - surprise, surprise! I prefer to stay in and watch fireworks rippling through the great expanse of black sky over this city. From my vantage point, I am also able to see the lights sprawling all across the city. It is breathtakingly beautiful, but my heart is not in it. To me, this is just like any other day. I am spending a quiet evening in my home with my favorite people. My daughter has thrown a tantrum today, which is out of the ordinary, but it was short and she was back to her smiling self in no time. That was the most notable part of my day. It is just another day, another good day. I have caught myself so many times today from spiraling into a thought maelstrom- why are people celebrating, what is happening, am I missing something, it's just another day, justanotherday, justanotherday...

Photo by Rebecca McCue
Perhaps if I were in that city, you know, the heart of which sells rose garlands on cold December nights, where men cook rice and lentils in large cauldrons so visitors to the tombs of saints can purchase meals for the poor, where steaming sugary chai is sold in chipped ceramic mugs on roadsides laden with fog, where ice-cream shops stay open until 3 in the morning, where a stack of journals old and new is maybe waiting for me still...perhaps I, too, would celebrate, because who cares if it's just another day, right? In Lahore, you celebrate everything, every day - or at least that was the Lahore I grew up in. Is it still the same, I wonder as the sound of fireworks dies away in the distance. The sky above me is dark again. What does it look like in Lahore? Just another day, just another day, justanotherday...

Giving Thanks

During the last two months of the year, we inevitably receive constant reminders to reflect on what we are thankful for. Magazine covers show perfectly roasted birds laid on fine porcelain platters in November for the Thanksgiving and transition to glossy stacks of perfectly wrapped presents in December for the holiday season. It is quite impossible not to dwell on the things you are grateful for during the few weeks that round up the year. There are naturally the obvious things one is thankful for - health, comfort, family, success, possibilities, the liberty and ability to do anything, be anything, to aim and achieve. However, when I read Rachel Ray's letter in last month's Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine, in which she talks about being thankful for "food," I wondered if it is not worth being more granular in my thinking as well. After all, the hunger statistics in the world are staggering. 

I am thankful for food, too. I have more than I need, and it is a great pleasure for me to write about it. During this season, however, it is important to observe that with my fridge bulging with leftovers after a magnificent Thanksgiving feast, I am far from the despair that is brought on by a hungry belly. If you are like me, even a quiet moment of meditation will go a long way if it results in you sharing a small slice of your pie of prosperity with the unfortunate. It is really very simple – just one recurring payment to your favorite charity hidden between the monthly evidence of a comfortable life (charges for beauty boxes, video subscriptions, book purchases, etc.). There are obviously other ways to give back. A friend of mine volunteers in soup kitchens during the holidays. Another friend is planning to capture portraits of patients to give them hope. My roommate in college used to invite all the stragglers for a Thanksgiving meal - college students who couldn't go back home and wanted a nice meal and good company...

I am thankful also for having a welcoming home, and more importantly, I am grateful for having it frequented by guests. I was talking to my sister the other day and she mentioned that in most religions and traditions, to host guests is an honor. In Islamic tradition specifically, we grew up listening to the story of Hazrat Abu-Bakr Siddiq (r.a.). He gave away all his wealth in the name of Islam. One night, he was sheltering travelers, but had very little food. He offered all of his food to his guests and lowered the flame of his lamp so his guests would not know that their host was forgoing his own rations to feed them. I had forgotten about this story until she reminded me of it. I have been guilty in the past few months of wrinkling my nose at the prospect of hosting guests. With a demanding schedule that encompasses work, family, baby, writing, studying, and teaching, I am left with very little patience to entertain – even though I feel my best when I am doing exactly that – entertaining. This story made me realize how guests really are an honor (I also agree with Benjamin Franklin that “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days”). Let’s face it. I am not the only person in the world with responsibilities and a grueling routine. If my guests are willing to take out the time to visit me, I should take it as the compliment it is meant to be. 

Finally, I am thankful for my friends. All of them – near and far. Some of my family members are my best friends. There are others who, over the years, have acquired a familiarity that is akin to being related by blood. We are all separated by time and distance, scattered as we are across several continents. Sometimes, we don’t speak for months, and then suddenly some kind of magic takes hold of the air around me and them at the same time, and we are propelled into the perfect harmony of “having free time” to Skype for hours (I should also offer thanks for Skype and Facetime). Speaking of friends, though, I must say that everyone should have a Rebecca in their lives. There is very little about my life that Rebecca does not know. While she does not always understand the complexities I encounter as I tread two identities in two different continents, she is always able to sympathize. Every year, she cooks me a fantastic Thanksgiving meal and has become a part of my family so completely that all you have to do is look at my baby’s big smile upon seeing Rebecca to realize how much we care for her. This year, Thanksgiving was spent with the usual preparations and piles of delicious food as you can see in the pictures. The turkey was beautiful to look at and perfectly moist and wonderfully flavorful with crisped golden-brown skin. Creamed corn, fluffy mashed potatoes and salty gravy, crisp string beans with pesto sauce, smoky roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, and tangy apple pie for dessert with a flaky crust. It was a memorable dinner to say the least. 

Being in the presence of other family members, I sometimes find it difficult to transition into and out of accents, inflections, and even languages. While Rebecca was busy cooking in the kitchen to prepare our feast, I was going back and forth between Urdu with my family and English with her. The juggling made me wonder, quite profoundly, if I have sometimes inadvertently left her out of conversations, and worse, if she has felt that way. 

It is one of the aspects of my personality I have struggled with. I have never been at ease with speaking a language that a part of my audience does not understand, but over and over, I fall back into this pattern, perhaps by habit or by circumstances. I noticed, for example, my mother who does not converse fluently in English shying away from the company of my American friends  and preferring to stay in her room after greeting them, because we spoke English among ourselves, and I often forgot to translate for her benefit or include her in the conversation. I wondered anxiously on Thanksgiving Day, if I had somehow alienated my best friend, too, by not having the discipline to stick to one universally understood language. I may have – I will hear about it either way after she reads this. 

For now, I am sanguine. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, we met up with Rebecca at the mall. My two-year-old daughter rushed into her arms, ran around her in circles, and stayed with her for two hours, just playing and laughing because she was so excited to see her. There is no language between them, but they understand each other perfectly. My daughter is able to communicate with everyone she loves without saying anything at all. Maybe that’s a universally understood language in itself, and I am thankful for being privy to it.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

It's a Free Country

My sisters and I walked to the small corner store at the end of our lane on a sweltering August afternoon. We purchased a medium sized fabric flag, and three packets of small flags printed on cheap paper strung together with a length of twine. We came home and wedged the medium sized flag made with a polyester blend fabric between the curves in the wrought-iron fence circling our rooftop terrace. We tied the makeshift paper banner of flags across the fence, too, end to end. That night it rained and in the morning there was only twine left, the paper flags had dissolved away in the downpour. The one printed on fabric swayed on its flagpole for a few weeks, fading away under the relentless sun, until 15-year-old Javaid, an orphaned immigrant from Kabul who had shown up at our house one day asking for help and eventually moved in to help with household chores, took it down and taped it to the wall above his bed.

We didn't really understand the meaning of Independence Day. To us, it was a good day because it was a holiday. It wasn't until I actually moved to America that I started to celebrate the day of Pakistan's creation, 14th of August, in my own quiet way. I wore green and white, changed the desktop picture on my computer to one of the Pakistani flag, wrote about Lahore. One year, I went to the azaadi mela in San Francisco, which was disappointing. Women sized each other up, the food at all the little stalls was underwhelming and overpriced, an unremarkable musical band played Mehdi Hassan songs lazily.

When you are living away from Pakistan, sometimes the realization of being Pakistani, no matter how long it has been since you've been away, creeps upon you and suddenly pounces. It takes your breath away. Other times, it descends upon you fluidly, serves as an anchor. There are other times still, when your origin makes for a damn good story.

When I traveled with my green passport prior to getting my California ID, I knew I'd be pulled out of line randomly for secondary checking. The realization steadied me, prepared me. It became perfectly acceptable, familiar even. Just routine.

While being patted down by the TSA seemed entirely ordinary, conversely, a visit to the Pakistani Consulate in Los Angeles staggered me. Seven months pregnant, I showed up at the Pakistani Consulate with my husband at 8:30 in the morning to get my passport renewed. A middle-aged man unlocked the office doors at 9AM and we were allowed to go in and retrieve a ticket with a number on it. We were the first clients of the morning. The double doors of the office opened up into a narrow rectangular room with uncomfortable metal chairs on one side, a desktop computer and camera equipment set up in a corner, and a set of three windows directly in front of the door. There was nobody behind the windows. There were two beautiful prints on the wall, a photograph of a grassy knoll somewhere in Pakistan and one of its snow-capped mountains. On the opposite wall was a poster-sized sketch of the Quaid-e-Azam next to an 11x17 framed portrait of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Gradually, the room began to fill in. Women in chaddars came in and took their seats. One man walked in with his wife and two daughters. There was a bone-tired couple who had driven all the way from Texas. They all took their numbers and waited in their seats. A man in a suit, who looked like he took himself way too seriously, emerged from the back door of the office and started tinkering with the camera equipment. His jaw was clenched. He did not make eye contact with the waiting crowd of people. By this time, we had been waiting for almost two hours. My feet were beginning to swell and form a hillock of flesh around the band of my flip-flops. Some more consulate officers began to make appearances behind the windows. It looked like they were shuffling through papers, opening mail. Someone asked how long it would be before they started to call out numbers. There was a vague answer from one of the officers that I did not hear.

Around this time, a family of four walked in: middle-aged parents, a young college-age daughter, a school-age son. There was no room to sit so they huddled next to the door. The father walked up to the man in the suit who was still working with the camera. Since the room was so small, everyone could hear the conversation that took place. The new arrival introduced himself. The man in the suit said, "Oh yes, we've been expecting you for your passports. I will take you back directly." With this, they disappeared behind the back doors of the office and emerged twenty minutes later. The man in the suit led the family outside, all the way to the elevator, saying his goodbyes. I sat in my chair, stunned, feeling bereft of words and fiercely betrayed, the pain in my back radiating towards my knee, my feet already out of my slippers. I stared daggers at Jinnah's sketch and then scowled at the man in the suit. I had been waiting for almost three hours.

Without a warning, my husband got out of his chair and in two strides he was towering over the man in the suit. "Look, I have been waiting for three hours. We were the first ones here. What is going on? Why are other people being helped before us?" The man in the suit told my husband to take a seat. He said we'd be seen when the staff members were ready. "See, here's the thing," boomed my husband so the whole room would hear him. "My wife is seven months pregnant and she is not feeling well. Unfortunately for you, we are not actually in Pakistan. If someone doesn't help us in the next ten minutes, I am calling an ambulance to take her to the ER and asking your inefficient office to pocket the bill. Am I making myself clear?" The man in the suit told my husband to take a seat again and scurried away. The woman who had driven from Texas with her husband whispered in my ear, "Congratulations!" I never got a chance to ask her what she was congratulating me for - for the baby, or for the fact that my husband got the Pakistani Consulate staff to attend to the citizens of their country who had been waiting in line all morning. We were out of there in the next ten minutes.

We carry our country with us wherever we go. The family that arrived after us and were shepherded to the back office carried a sense of entitlement with them. It must have traveled here from the old country with the father, confident in his handshake with the consulate officer, a tight smile indicating he meant business. The man in the suit - what did he carry? Self-importance? Resentment? Apathy? My husband brought out the bully he held inside him, because no one was following the rules in that small office. The rules had been left at the threshold. Even though my husband had threatened the officer to achieve our goal, he had erroneously invoked our physical location - Los Angeles - to do so, because within the confines of that poorly designed, stuffy room, we were on Pakistani soil. And I... I was carrying a baby who would be Pakistani and American, who maybe wouldn't understand the nuances of this precariously guarded identity.

I carry that incident with me now. The shock. The disappointment. The yearning to run out of that room.

But I also remember that August morning years ago on which I walked to the corner store with my sisters to buy flags for the simple reason that we were celebrating our freedom. Even if I didn't understand the meaning of what it was to be the citizen of a free country, I knew it was something to be celebrated. How free my country is today is up for debate, and the Internet is aflame with memes and commentaries on this subject. 

Despite everything, however, the most heartening image I carry within me is of 15-year-old Javaid, orphaned in Afghanistan, but humming the national anthem of Pakistan while drifting off to sleep in a small room in Lahore, the Pakistani flag taped on his wall flapping, undulating, in time with the rotation of a creaking pedestal fan.

The Charm of Routine

“Not that she didn’t enjoy the holidays: but she always felt—and it was, perhaps, the measure of her peculiar happiness—a little relieved when they were over. Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half afraid to step out of its frame in case one day she should find herself unable to get back."
- Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver
Monday morning madness. I arrive at work later than usual, because I have some meetings that will continue into the early hours of the evening. I begin to type furiously even before I am comfortably settled in my chair. Hours pass. I answer questions. Write emails. Before I know it, I am on my third cup of coffee and fourth meeting of the day. I have worked through lunch, which I like to do, but the meal has been disappointing. Tasteless beef with stiff brown rice, under-seasoned vegetables, and limp pasta in an unappetizing yellow sauce. Coffee is better. Much better. I am back at work after two days off followed by the weekend. Four days of nothing but Eid celebrations. The holidays have been good to me. Now I am back at my desk, with my "crap-to-do" pad filling up. I check off one item and add three more in its place. I take my empty coffee cup to the Keurig. I pop in a K-cup - Newman's Own Special Blend - my favorite. As the coffee brews I lean on the counter with my elbows resting on the cool metal surface, my head in my hands, and I breathe in the steam. But back to work now. Chop, chop. And would you believe it? I love every minute of it. 

I resent Monday mornings, not because I have to go back to work, but because up until the midday epiphany I always get at the beginning of the work-week ("I love doing this."), I have the false feeling of not wanting to be there. It is nothing but a spillover effect from the weekend, but it's real on Monday mornings. The break in routine, the interruption of my weekday breakfast of badly poached eggs and creamy-sweet coffee while I check my email by two lazy mornings of getting pinched and slapped by a cute baby until I clamber out of bed to make her pancakes, disorients me. Every Monday, I have to relearn the motions. A teaspoon of water in the egg-poacher, 35 seconds for each egg in the microwave, Newman's Own, cream, Splenda, with a side of emails.

Let me tell you a short and interesting story. When I had Jahan, I devoured parenting books. I did not even have a background in vicarious learning when it came to raising babies. I went to the birthing class with my husband to gain some wisdom, but we walked out halfway through, because on the slide titled "How Dads Can Support Moms During Labor," one of the bullet points read, "Say encouraging things like 'I am so proud of you,' and 'I love you for doing this.'" For some odd reason, my husband thought that was absolutely hilarious and dissolved into badly concealed laughter. We left the class. On my first night home with Jahan, I almost took her to the ER because she wouldn't stop crying. I felt completely useless as a mother. "This is a big mistake," I thought. "I am not fit to raise this baby." Thankfully, Usman's cousin who was visiting us from Reno, took her from me, wrapped her up really tight in a blanket and swayed her in his arms until she went to sleep. She just needed to be swaddled. Simple. "OK," I thought. "If there is a logical set of steps I can follow, then this is doable." Baby 411 became my bible. I had Harvey Karp on my Kindle, Baby 411 on my nightstand, and they all said the same thing. Routine, routine, routine. You need to give your baby a dependable schedule, so she knows what to expect, so she can learn what's coming next. I marveled at this. How can a baby recognize routines, patterns? But, she did. By 6 weeks, her sleep cycle had corrected itself. By 4 months, she was sleeping through the night. And by 6 months, she was fully sleep-trained, falling asleep on her own, following a perfect schedule. 

Even babies, or perhaps especially babies, are creatures of habit. I don't think this instinct of following a routine, having a pattern or a predictable "normal life" ever goes away. This is why it's hard to form a habit, but harder to break one. This is why despite the Monday morning crisis, I always bounce back. This is also why it was strange not to be cooking on Wednesday nights for the blog after doing it for so many weeks and why for a long while after I discontinued my daily walks at work due to schedule constraints, I felt wretched. This week's Monday morning got me thinking about the importance of routine a lot. I exercised such control over my baby's routine in the first year of her life that we all simply take her good habits for granted now. They are cultivated - practically since birth. And if I do buy into this belief of routine having a lot of significance in daily life, then why do I short-change myself? Why don't I exercise the same control over my routine and guard it with the same vigilance? 

The city waking up during one of my walks
The answer is simple. I would rather make my routine malleable to fit everything I need to do in my day than adversely impact someone else. And that is simply not fair. I find happiness in predictability, in eggs and coffee on weekday mornings. I used to find it in my early morning walks with the cloud thickets in the sky, dew palpable on my fingertips, the city awake, yawning, gearing up for the day. I find it in my audiobooks on the way to work and on the way back. I find it in the game I play with my baby every day at 4:30 when I get home from work - "Mommy's gonnaaaa  geeetttt youuuu," and her squeals of delight dissolving into laughter as she throws herself on the bed resigning herself to the tickle monster. I find it in writing this. Here. As I used to twice a week at one point. My normal life does indeed please me well. Maybe it's time to make it charming again. Maybe it's time to prioritize and cross off and add to it until I have the comfort of predictability, until I am like the woman in the quote above - "Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half afraid to step out of its frame in case one day she should find herself unable to get back."

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Ghost of Eid Past

I have not posted my weekly escapades in the kitchen in observation of Ramadan, but will resume the food posts that have assimilated into the identity of this blog sometime next week. It has been a blessed month in many ways. Having the company, comfort, and distraction of family and friends after hearing about my cousin's tragic death was heartening. This is the last week of Ramadan, which means my favorite Islamic holiday of the year is only a few days away! Eid-al-Fitr, known as Choti Eid where I come from, is almost upon us! I want to make this holiday matter to my daughter like it once did to me, and I want to celebrate this particular Eid in my cousin's memory, because I remember him most clearly in his finest Eid clothes, smiling widely, eyes shining.

I cannot begin to describe what kind of excitement this holiday brought for us as children. It stretched to not one, not two, but three days of celebrations and festivities. Every morning for the three days of Eid, a holiday marking the end of Ramadan, my sisters and I would dress up in brand new outfits: Stiffly starched cotton shalwar kameez, shiny raw-silk angrakha tops with white churidaar pajamas, and one year, Jamavar lehengas! And these were only for the first day of Eid. The next day, we would have frilly knee-length dresses, with white socks and shiny black shoes, which our mother always referred to as "court shoes," or long skirts with lace borders and chiffon tops with ruffled sleeves and fancy pearl-shaped buttons. The third day was much calmer and we could wear whatever we wanted, which always ended in really inspired combinations put together by my youngest sister. A denim mini-skirt one year with a a white eyelet top and a yellow dupatta draped around the ensemble like a sari. 

Choti Eid was a time of unbridled excitement and gluttonous eating, but the best days were those leading up to the big celebration, especially the night before - Chaand Raat - "the night of the moon," referring to the sighting of the crescent moon before Eid day. Crowds rushed in flocks to neighborhood bazaars. Every year, the market in my parents' neighborhood held an outdoor shopping event on Chaand Raat. Shopkeepers set up small stalls under huge tents and canopies. The makeshift market glittered with bulbs strung along cords that ran through the length of the tents, swinging above our heads. Each stall sold the same wares, colorful glass bangles, cones and sachets of henna, shiny metal rings with cheap crystals - exciting items for little girls and easy on their mothers' pockets. 

From photos.thenews.com.pk
We would get the last-minute Eid shopping done on Chaand Raat. We would match different sets of bangles to small pieces of fabric leftover and returned by the tailor after he stitched our Eid outfits. We would buy any items that were missing, maybe a pair of shoes for one of us, a belt for another. We would rush home after shopping with our mother who was invariably nervous about all the tasks that still remained incomplete. She spent hours on Chaand Raat getting the house ready for guests who would visit us the next day. She straightened up the drawing room curtains, polished the furniture, shampooed the carpet, took out cheerful new sheets for our little twin beds. When all this was done, my sisters and I took turns making intricate patterns of henna on each others' palms. My middle sister was always left with the unpleasant and interminable task of putting henna on my hands. I was so particular about each line, each dot, each curve, that she was subjected to terrible scoldings, pinches, kicks, and slaps from me if she wasn't absolutely precise in copying the design from a magazine or a book. By the time we went to sleep, tired, happy, our hands covered in small plastic bags so we wouldn't get the drying henna on our sheets, we could still hear our mother buzzing around the house like a worker bee, dusting the shelves, fluffing cushions, stirring foodstuffs that were steaming on the stove already.

The next day, we would wake up to the sound of our uncle, Chachoo, crinkling fresh notes of money next to our ears. He would be dressed in a starched shalwar kameez, having just returned from Eid prayers at the neighborhood mosque. We would look up, bleary-eyed, not remembering what day it was, our hands still covered in plastic bags, cold from being outside the covers all night and stiff from the dried henna. Then we would look at his big smile and the new banknotes in his hands, and suddenly we would remember. "It's EID!!! Which means...it's time to get Eidee," we'd say and sit up in bed. Yes, this was the highlight of Choti Eid. All the elders gave money to the kids, plucked it from cleanly stapled piles of 10-rupee bills freshly withdrawn from the bank. We would put away our very first installment from Chachoo in our little fanny-packs or wallets or pouches and run into the shower. Once dressed and ready, the Eidee kept on coming from relatives, from our parents' friends, from neighbors. We would receive hordes of guests at our tiny house, embrace them, and say "Eid mubarak!" Blessed Eid. Several festively dressed families would show up at once, relax in my mother's immaculate drawing room, and enjoy the items laid carefully on her tea-trolley. A steaming teapot covered in an embroidered tea cosy, surrounded by her good china on the bottom shelf. On the upper tier of the trolley was all the good stuff: chanaa chaat, potato fritters, samosas, black forest cake, cutlets, macaroni salad, kebabs. We would stuff ourselves silly and almost always nap in the afternoon. 

This year, far from Lahore and my childhood, the responsibility of making Eid exciting falls to me. We're going to do Eid differently in my house this year. First off, there will be Eidee, yes, but there will also be beautifully wrapped gifts for everyone, because to me presents are more exciting, more personal. I will bake layer cakes and loaves of banana bread. I will make chicken cutlets and chanaa chaat. My baby will unwrap a lovely new toy, especially for Eid. Some things will be reminiscent of the Eids of my childhood. There will be new sheets on the beds. The house will be scrubbed clean, every last nook and cranny of it. I will take out the fancy tea service and the lace-trimmed napkins. I will put henna on my palms. All the while I will remember those who are not physically present in my home this Eid and those who are no longer in this world. I am determined to make it a good day.

Stanford, Tokyo, London

Stanford, California, USA - 12:38PM

I am eating my lunch outside the office, where a bee is incessantly interrupting me as I finish my salad. Maybe it is the Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume I am wearing that's attracting this annoyance. It has been an exceptionally humid two days (for the Bay Area). It reminds me achingly of Lahore. This weather is comforting and disconcerting at the same time. It is comforting because my skin has memory of it. As the moist air touches me, my body remembers feeling a sensation akin to this years ago in more humid and much warmer climate. I almost expect large salty raindrops to fall on me and a wind to give the rain direction and force. The humidity is disconcerting because it seems out of place here in the bay area, and also because it only feels like a half-memory, a half-shadow of what I left behind in Lahore. The day doesn't have the same heavy, overbearing blanket of moisture that made my hair curl and chest tight back in my home city. It doesn't have the same smells, flowers blooming, pakoras frying in recycled oil of questionable origins on street corners, little boys and girls jumping in puddles on the street, smiling gleefully, cars filling up with water on roads, and always the rain, the relentless monsoon rain, which caused rivers to swell and crops to die and villages to flood. It feels wrong here, this humidity, but also like a small, unassuming gift. Like someone up there saying, "Here, have a piece of the past; a diluted, pencil-tracing-as-opposed-to-water-color-type piece, but a gift nonetheless to feed your senses." It's much appreciated.

Tokyo, Japan - 4:38AM

My middle sister, Qurat Noor, sleeps in her tiny studio apartment in the heart of Tokyo. She only just went to sleep. The Fajr (dawn) prayer happens at 2:30AM in Tokyo these days. She either stays awake for the prayer or sets an alarm to wake up at that time. We chat after she prays usually. We tell each other things about our day, which are not really that important or exciting, but we listen anyway because we are sisters. Often, I whine, and she commiserates. A few hours from now, she will wake up and get ready for work. Her husband will have left already. Qurat will lay out her clothes in her usual habit, neatly ironed, and in order. A pair of pants, a long shirt, shoes and socks, scarf and coat. Check, check, check, and check. She will make herself a small breakfast. Maybe she will walk to her balcony and look at the cherry blossom tree. Maybe she will think of me as she sips her chai or of our baby sister as she puts on the scarf they bought together in London a few years ago, without me. She will walk out and catch a train to her office where she gives English language lessons to locals. Will she notice the weather? Will the air that tingled my arms reach her in a few hours? Will she breathe it in and be surprised because it smells like Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume, or will it just mingle with the fresh fragrance of the gorgeous blooms all around her? Will she instinctively reach into her handbag for her phone to find the screen blinking, telling her that there is a new message from one of her sisters in our WhatsApp group chat (titled, very unoriginally and rather aptly, Noor Ladies Only)?

London, UK - 8:38PM

Mahey Noor, "the fairest and youngest of them all," sits dejectedly in a small room in London. Most of her packing is done. Her suitcase lies closed but unzipped in a corner, the top flap resting like a parted lip, surly, angry. Mahey's 3-week vacation was simply not enough for her to absorb London through her skin until the next time she can visit this city that seems to thrum through her body. If she could live in this city, she would probably never miss Lahore. She has visited all the landmarks and tourist attractions. She has gone shopping, had fish and chips while traveling, and watched a Bollywood blockbuster in the theater. She was almost blown away at one of the beaches, the wind whipping her around, taking hold of her hair and her coat, making her buckle down, brace herself. She has gotten to know the London underground better than the roads of Lahore. She has also spent a lot of time just sitting in her room, sometimes writing, sometimes not, mostly just feeling  at peace with the city sprawling around her, realizing that this is where her home should be. She has loved London for years and planned this trip to revive herself, collect her thoughts and energies, detox in a more granular way than of the emotional or physical variety. She looks at her ticket and passport slipped into a red Stanford folder I sent her. Does she register the fact that I, too, touched the same piece of laminated cardboard that she has in her possession, or does she only concentrate on the sad, heavy feeling of the looming goodbye, much like the weather I am experiencing, but more like the one I am remembering, the kind we loved and lived through, all three of us, together?

The summer monsoons were important to us when we were little girls. They stood for buying new notebooks, large hardcover wide-ruled journals we called "registers," A-4 papers, folders and binders, textbooks and brown paper sheets to cover them. They made it possible to have long afternoons to read Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Woods series. They signaled the time for our mother to spend several evenings wrapping our books for the coming school year and slapping a sticker on the front, on which I used to write the owner’s name in my neat cursive hand. "Noorulain Noor, 3-C," "Quratulain Noor, 1-B," "Mahey Noor, Prep-A." They gave us lots of time to play "teacher-teacher," in which we took turns for the role of "Miss Noor," writing on our small chalkboard, marking our pretend assignments with swooping checks or crosses and adding comments in the margins, "Good," "Excellent," "Poor," "Improvement needed." The monsoons also gave us a reason to sneak up to the roof in our sundresses and run in the rain, our mother coming upstairs with towels, wrapping us in them, our hair wet and flying every which way, our fingertips wrinkly, teeth chattering, lips blue. They meant sleeping in every day, all three of us, tiny forms huddled on the same bed, the middle sister appropriately sleeping in the middle - birth order was ever so important back then.

The summer monsoons meant so much more, too, though – mostly that we would be together all day, every day, for the next three months. Twelve weeks that almost felt like a lifetime to us. They seemed endless. Little did we know that by the time the oldest one of us turned 18, we’d be separated, our childhoods nothing more than wavering shadows in our lives.

Murree, Pakistan. 1999.
I come inside after lunch, and a wonderful thing happens. I check my phone and there are messages from both my sisters. Tokyo can’t sleep and London is still packing. I join in and type, “Hi girls!” All of us are in this virtual space together at the same time in different parts of the world. This has not happened in months. It feels almost magical. Usually we respond to each other, our messages separated by hours, sometimes days. “All three Noor sisters present! Hurray!” says Qurat. “Let’s take a picture just as we are right now and send it, OK?” This from Mahey, always wanting to hold memories and immortalize them somehow. We send our selfies: Me at my desk, Qurat standing in front of a full-length mirror, Mahey sitting on her bed. For a few minutes, we are together again, little girls in different time zones, possessing small reminders of each other, my Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume, Qurat’s scarf - the one she bought in London with Mahey, and Mahey’s red Stanford folder. We are somehow encapsulated into a long panoramic shot, spanning continents and oceans. We are three sisters in three countries, yet in one place somehow. Together. Harmonized. Synchronous.

Thanksgiving in Pictures

This year's Thanksgiving was once again a huge success with Rebecca at the helm of the kitchen! My only role in this year's Thanksgiving was to enjoy her delicious cooking. It was a perfectly relaxed evening with great company. Good friends are the solution to life's little (and big) problems. Pictures of our wonderful evening below.
Our Thanksgiving table (drinks on Jahan's highchair)

Mashed potatoes with herb compound butter.

Creamed corn and string beans with sliced almond and sauteed onions.

Stuffing, steamed squash, cranberry sauce.
Rebecca carving the golden brown, perfect turkey!

The turkey!
My turkey on Turkey Day.